Sunday, February 4, 2007

As God Is My Witness: St. George's Church, Union Square

Last weekend, Lauren and her husband Doug took me to St. George’s Church, an old and illustrious Episcopalian chapel conveniently located right by Union Square, downtown. Like most churches, this one seemed much bigger on the inside than on the outside. It looked exactly like what I thought an Episcopalian church ought to look like – shaped like a Catholic church, with tremendously tall arched ceilings, a long nave, and a raised altar in front, but in a way wiped clean – rather than gilded decorations or cherubs or Christs-on-Crosses, the front of the church was a bare white, with a simple giant wooden cross the only decoration. Paint is peeling off the ceiling.

The congregation dates to 1749; the building to 1846. Back when the people of downtown New York went to church, this was quite the scene. J. P. Morgan worshiped here. Now, with attendance dropping, St. George’s Church has an odd sort of rotation relationship with the parish of Calvary nearby. The church leaders go back and forth between the congregations, which has had a destabilizing effect on the church-goers.

As usual, going to the house of God is hard! Awkward! Even after a cup of coffee! Truthfully, I feel the same kind of awkwardness here that I feel in “my own” houses of worship. Because I don’t know what’s going to happen, because I feel like I don’t belong. Religious buildings are an odd combination – they are completely open, but they have very well defined borders. They’re emotional fortresses, and being inside when you’re not, you know, inside, is a truly odd feeling. Mitigating factors for the awkwardness: Since I’m a guest, I don’t feel like anybody is going to collar me and try to get me to do some sort of alarming public act (introduce myself; talk about my feelings; hold hands and dance across the room). Aggravating factors for the awkwardness: Since I’m a guest, I don’t really know what’s going to happen. (Well, okay, I know I shouldn’t eat the cracker.) Throughout the service, I dedicate a lot of energy toward appearing calm and comfortable, and assuming that the genuine feeling will follow. Which it eventually does. Mostly.

Jews joke about “Jewish time” but really most people are late at every religious service I’ve been to so far. My hosts and I are among the first 20 people in the building, though by the end of the service there are 60 or 70. (This is still only a tiny, tiny fraction of the chapel's capacity.) The churchgoers are diverse. There are a few older black women in hats, a few young hip types in jeans, a few young preppy blond couples in khakis and pastels. There is a rock band with a saxophone player. The guitarist looks hung over. The band plays softer rock than the Korean Presbyterians, but they’re not bad. The drummer is hidden behind a pillar, at least from where I’m sitting. Every time he hits his bass drum, a Divine-sounding thunderclap echoes unevenly around the church. It’s really kind of funny. The priest looks like he’s made his peace with this although it’s really not his thing.

Lauren, sweet, beautiful, and put-together, was raised in a non-denominational church. Her husband Doug, bearded and thoughtful, with gold earrings, was raised by a Baptist minister in Texas, but has since made a strong turn toward the high Episcopalian, which he views as more substantive, authentic and traditional. Church shopping has been a serious couple’s project for them. They have been going to St. George’s for a number of months, traveling the better part of an hour from Brooklyn every morning to get there. They settled on it after visiting about fifteen churches; they found it to be the best doctrinal compromise they could manage. Doug would like to go to an even higher church, with more formal ritual and liturgy (“smells and bells,” he calls it), but Lauren as a non-denominational does not find this super-appealing, so they seem to have settled at St. George’s for now. They also like the diversity. “The hipster church,” they call it. It’s not perfect, though -they talk about not feeling part of the church community, even after so many months and after they’ve joined the Bible study group – they think it may have to do with the rotating leadership.

For me, the most striking part of the service was the reading from scripture. I had to write a whole separate entry about it (see below). What else happens? They sing hymns, with the accompaniment of the rock band. They read the Nicean Creed. They read the Lord’s Prayer. They read a lot of things in calm, serious, old-fashioned language about Jesus and God’s mercy and the people’s redemption. They read the announcements, with numerous apologies about how boring the announcements are going to be (see, some things really are universal). They go up to the front of the church and take communion. Some little kids are running around.

After the service, we go around the corner to a diner and continue the conversation. Lauren, who has an art history degree, recently started working at a Jewish arts institution in New York. She’s low-key about it but I can tell something about it has really been eating at her. I don’t blame her. Older New York Jews, left to their own devices, can create this haughty, incomprehensible-to-outsiders in-club. They use words she doesn’t understand. They give her weird looks if she brings certain foods to work. They probably say obnoxious things about Christians or people with conservative “values.”

What’s really throwing Lauren and Doug about these old Jews, though, is that they aren’t even religious. The question they have for me, which they are almost too polite to ask, is, how can these people call themselves Jews, if they hate everything religious? I try to explain and end up giving them the whole history of American Judaism. How it’s more than a religion, more than a culture. As I blab, I keep having to stop myself to try to censor the jingoistic sentences creeping in about how special Jews are, how different we are than anybody else, how our definition of a people is the one that makes sense. These sentences are buried deep in the script that I’m repeating for Laura and Doug, as it was taught to me, and every time I start to go on autopilot, another one of the sentences starts to pop out.

I ask Doug, so, all these Americans who call themselves Christian and go to church on Easter and buy a Christmas tree at Christmas – are they Christians, in your book? Doug is also trying to be extremely polite, and he won’t say that the answer is no, but clearly he thinks the answer is no.

I ask him about the gay rights issue, or whatever you want to call it, that’s currently splitting apart the Episcopalian church in the US. Doug reframes the argument as something else – as a larger dialogue about change in the church. If you change one thing, what's to keep anyone from making any other changes? What’s the point of tradition if you can just change it?

This conversation was very interesting but it was very hard. It’s hard to really listen to someone and it’s hard to really say what you think. Most of the time we speak in verbal shorthand to people who are just like us. It’s exhausting to try to use words that carry an accurate and helpful meaning for someone with a different background. After lunch I was hyperactive and tired. I think I wore Doug and Lauren out too. Doug told me he felt uncomfortable reciting the Nicene Creed with us standing next to him. And then he thought, wait a minute, isn’t this what I believe? Isn’t that the whole point of saying it. It’s not a secret. In fact, it’s the opposite – a public declaration. Witnesses remind you of the significance of what you’re doing and saying. They’re powerful – that’s why we tiptoe around them, and that’s why we’re so happy talking to people who are like us, when nobody else is watching. The Nicene Creed is an oath – like a marriage vow, like the Pledge of Allegiance – and it’s still got quite a bit of power.

It’s good to be a guest and to be a witness. It makes you realize how much you take for granted in your own home. Maybe that’s why houses of God are mostly so open – even though prayer is intensely personal - it’s assumed that any guest might come in, and so you should be prepared for that, and be comfortable showing who you really are and what you really believe in, no matter who is watching. And maybe the point of this is to show you that you should show who you really are with all your actions, even when you’re not in church. And maybe one reason to believe in God is that God is like a constant witness to your every action. You do not go unobserved. Your every action has consequence. Everything you do sets you apart from all other people. How do you want to be seen – by others, by God, by yourself? It’s your choice.

Join Us Next Week For: The Sephardic Synagogue. And Possibly: The Darwin Festival.

9 comments:

melinama said...

An excellent report! I feel like I was there. What a great project this is.

Alma said...

I agree that this is a wonderful project. Your writing is so absorbing!

I soooo understand what you, Lauren and Doug are going through. My husb and I have yet to find a church we feel comfortable in. We thought we found one, but then they brought in a new priest. The mass is rotated between the pastor and this new priest. The problem is that we LOVE the pastor there, but we're revolted by some of the new guy's harsh and even hypocritical views... The rotation is not consistent, so we never know if we're going to get the good priest or the bad one. I'm hoping this new guy will get transferred out someday soon.

Thanks for sharing your quest. Can't wait to read the next installment.

Anonymous said...

Your blog speaks to me about your generation (I’m your grandmother). I love it – the blog AND, come to think of it, the generation as you represent it. I see your blog as an aspect of your group’s longing for community – you grew up in a mass, though splintered world. Gone are the many interconnections of neighborhood, voluntary organizations, enduring social ties. I don’t want you to think it used to all be wonderful, but it did offer places to more easily hang your hat, even if it took half a lifetime for me to find where I belong.

Your adventurous quest and its sparkling energy give me hope for the future. You open a rare window onto varied places of fresh, young spiritual practice. And I don’t even have to listen to their music.

Can’t wait to see where next you’ll take us.

Betsy WIllard said...
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